Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson

3. The Slow Hunch

  • Most great ideas come into the world half-baked. They first take shape in partial incomplete form. The missing element is somewhere else living as another hunch. Networks allow partial ideas to connect. As such they are dating services that allow promising hunches to become complete ideas. Two hunches regarding 9/11 that never connected are given as an example.
  • While you may hear stories of how big new ideas came as a single flash of incite (epiphany), the reality is that big new ideas generally develop over time. Darwin’s theory of natural selection, for example, had been percolating in his mind for sometime when a nudge from Malthus finished the job. This can be seen by reading Darwin’s notebooks. It turns out that it is common for purveyors of new ideas to keep notebooks so they can revisit old hunches in the light of new information. The message is that if you think you just had a good idea, write it down and reread it someday.
  • The World Wide Web is a classic example of how innovations arise through the process of accretion. In 1980, Tim Berners-Lee was working at CERN in Switzerland when he started dabbling with software that could connect information. About ten years later his boss let him spend some work time developing the idea and the World Wide Web was born. Suddenly, all of the information in the world was connected. This is just the opposite of how the FBI operates. At the FBI, all information is stored in silos and viewed on a “need to know” basis. This is why two hunches that would have revealed the 9/11 plot were never allowed to connect.

4. Serendipity

  • The literature is filled with instances of how great ideas were finalized during a dream, and dreams are still a fertile area of research. Studies have shown how people are more likely to solve a problem if they are exposed to it and then sleep on it. It seems that as you sleep, your brain experiments with novel combinations of neurons. Sometimes large clusters of neurons fire at the exact same frequency. This is known as phase lock. Other times the opposite happens and we get noisy or chaotic firing. It seems that this is when your brain is trying new connections and studies show the people with noisier brains score higher on IQ tests.
  • Serendipity is the process of happy connections that are unplanned. Unlikely collisions can lead to innovations so you want to set up your environment in a way that makes them more probable. Steven suggests that you get away from routine tasks of your daily grind and do something else like taking a walk (Doug: probably without headphones on). The big question here is does the World Wide Web increase the number of serendipitous occurrences? Steven thinks that actions like browsing or surfing result in a rise of happy collisions. Unfortunately, most organizations are quick to patent innovations. What we need are public databases of hunches and good searching abilities. One such place is Idea Exchange,

5. Error

  • Mistakes are an inevitable step on the path to true innovation. The history of innovation contains numerous instances of innovators pursuing wrong ideas and scientists with contaminated laboratories. Error often creates a path that leads one out of comfortable assumptions. Being wrong forces you to explore. The bigger mistake is dismissing the errors we make. Studies show that groups contaminated with erroneous information end up making more original connections. DNA mutations and transcription errors are a necessary part of evolution. While most mutations are bad, the fact that we have sex allows the offspring with the good errors to prosper. It’s no accident that one of the mantras in many businesses is fail faster.
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